Ireland’s golf sensation, Leona Maguire, talks about her 15-year journey to qualification for the LPGA Tour, her unique sporting relationship with her twin, Lisa, and learning how to win.
Going to Duke University in North Carolina for four years was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I was in class during the day surrounded by future NBA players, Olympians, people that were trying to cure cancer, people that were going to be Supreme Court Justices, and lawyers, and doctors. You were just around that culture of excellence, so everybody seemed to be achieving something great. It didn’t matter what field they were in.
There really wasn’t the opportunity here for me in Ireland to play golf at that level and get a really good education at the same time. It was at that point in my career I had to make a choice. Did I want to go straight into college and get a job here, or did I want to be a professional golfer? Ultimately, to be a professional golfer I felt that America was the place to do that. I had fantastic facilities, great competition, and brilliant weather all year round. I had just so many new opportunities there.
It didn’t really seem like I was doing something out of the ordinary over there. I was just keeping up with everybody else. I was achieving what I was on the golf course, and then I’d get back to campus, and somebody else had done something incredible. I didn’t feel in the spotlight at all. I just blended in with everyone else which was nice for me. At the same time, it really pushed me to work hard, and do better, and sort of keep up with the standards.
Every so often people would give me a number of how long I was ranked world number one, and I’d sort of smile and say, “OK”. I didn’t really keep track of it myself. I was just focused on winning tournaments and getting better. I mean, 135 weeks is a long time. There were some great tournaments. It was a big part of my college career, of course. I seemed to give myself the opportunity to win. I didn’t win all the time, but I always seemed to be there or thereabouts.
I took psychology classes in Duke and really liked it and the various aspects of it. From the forensic psyche, like looking at serial killers, and then the psyche of business, and learning all about how big companies sell to people, I find it so interesting. It’s quite practical to the real world as well.
I got my Psychology degree there, and hopefully it stands to me a little on the course. The best kind of psychology that I have leaned on would be knowing that I was as prepared as I could be. If I knew I’d the hard work done, and I’d put in the hours on my putting, my chipping. If I’d hit thousands of shots over and over again, knowing that I could pull it off on the big day. That was my psychology and still is.
I learn from the experiences I have had in the past.
Golf is, undoubtedly, a very mental game. It’s a game of inches, both on the course and those inches between your two ears.
”They say most people will have won or lost the tournament by the time they step on the first tee.
It’s just you, the golf course, and your caddy out there, and you have to post as low a number as you can.
Obviously, negative thoughts can creep in from time to time. It’s a case of staying positive out there and having a very short memory to focus on that one shot that you’re hitting and make sure, you’re putting all your effort into that. Psychology is definitely a big part of it, especially at that elite level, you’re just looking for that extra little bit. It can be a massive difference in the grand scheme of things.
Golf is one of those unique sports where you probably lose a lot more often than you win. So, you really have to enjoy it when you do win and make the most of that. At the same time, it is a fickle sport. Just when you think you have a hold on everything it can knock you back. At Duke, I really wanted to win a National Championship. As a team, we got to the semi-final twice, but we never won. As an individual, I finished second twice.
In 2018, at Q-school, I missed out by a single shot. After so much time and effort, to lose out by such small margins can be a bitter pill to swallow. But you don’t really have much time to dwell. Within a few weeks, I was competing in European Tour events. That initial setback was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It set me up for an even better year.
I came out and started really well in Australia, and then won two events in the Symetra Tour pretty early on. So, who knows? If I hadn’t missed my shot in Q-school, then maybe last year would have been quite different.
”Getting to the LPGA Tour was never a destination, it was just a stop on the journey. This is where the real fun starts, I guess.
I’ve dreamed about being on the LPGA for a long time. I’ve started telling people, “it’s been fifteen years in the making”. I’ve no idea where those fifteen years have gone, it’s just flown by.
I’ve played a handful of LPGA events in that time, but being out there every week is going to be a little different. It’s exciting. There’s going to be a few struggles and new things to learn, but it’s something that I’m really looking forward to.
Golf is a very individual sport, but you still need a good team behind you. I’m lucky to have that. I have my coach, my physio, my nutritionist, my caddy, and all of them working away behind the scenes. I’m the one on the course but they do trojan work behind the scenes, making sure I’m in the best position that I can be in to achieve. All I have to do is worry about my golf, they worry about everything else and tell me what I have to do to get better.
Me and my twin Lisa started playing golf when we were about nine or 10. At that point, it was just during the summers, and at weekends. We started off with three golf clubs between us. We’d a driver, some sort of iron, and a putter. Dad used to bring us to the driving range at Slieve Russell – that was our playground growing up. We used to bet a Mars bar who could get the ball across the road that runs across the driving range, it’s not far, about 60 or 70 yards out.
That was the big goal for a long time. I think Lisa got it first. I got it maybe a couple of weeks later, and then we moved from that to the par-three nine-hole course, started to get a few extra clubs and then worked our way up to the 18-hole course. It kind of all just went from there. We’ve always been competitive it didn’t really matter what it was. If it was growing up playing snakes and ladders, playing football in the back garden, when we were swimming, it just carried over to whatever we did.
Then with golf, if Lisa beat me one day, I’d try and beat her the next day. For a long time, she was better than me, she’d hit the ball further than me. Then I caught up and went past her, and she passed me again. It was just swings and roundabouts for a long time.
When we were about 12 or 13, Lisa won the World Championships in Pinehurst, North Carolina, and I won the Irish Ladies Close Championships in Westport after beating her in the final. I remember going into school, and we were on the front of the Irish Times and our maths teacher was sat up reading the paper in front of the whole class. That was definitely a little strange.
I’ve never been fond of the spotlight, but its part and parcel. I don’t play golf for the attention. I do it because I love what I do. Anything that goes along with that is just a by-product.
I always looked up to Padraig Harrington and the guys on tour because there were no ladies to look up to. When he was winning his majors and doing so well flying the tricolours all over the world, it inspired me.
I’d look to other sports as well like Katie Taylor when she was winning all her world championship medals and her Olympic medals with such class, determination and humility. I don’t think the sport really matters per se; I think you can still be inspired by people like you who are achieving great things.
The 20×20 campaign aims to get 20% more media coverage of female sports, but I’ve always said, “the better we do, the easier we make that for ourselves”. People want to watch people do great things. It doesn’t matter if it’s men or women. They want to be entertained. Sport is entertainment. It’s up to us as athletes to carry that flag.
Irish sport has had a fantastic 18 months. I mean you’ve got, Katie Taylor, Sanita Puspure, the Irish Women’s Hockey team have all done so well, and there’s a great buzz about the country about that. Irish fans are great for hopping on the bandwagon, and getting behind our athletes no matter what sport it is, or where it is. I’m just lucky to be a part of that.
Growing up, there was nobody on the LPGA tour that I could look up to. That’ll be the great thing about this year, having two of us out on the tour, Stephanie Meadow and me. That’s never happened before. That means that little girls at home can see us on TV and realise that it is possible, and you can do it. If a girl from Cavan can, then anybody else can do it from anywhere around the country.
”That’s the thing, it’s only impossible until one person does it.
No Irish person has won on tour yet, so hopefully either me or Stephanie will be the first.
Dad would have been a big part of my journey. He’s big into sport. He’s a GAA man. Anytime I’m home I’ll likely be at a Cavan match or a club match with Dad. He’d spend hours at the golf club collecting balls in the wind and the rain, and sometimes the snow. He’s been a huge part of that journey for encouraging us and supporting us.
Our parents have been an incredible part of our journey as has our brother Odhran. He’s been trekking around with us since he was four or five years old. He’d be copying us swinging or hitting little chips on the green with us. They’ve been incredible, we definitely couldn’t have done it without them. We’ve been very lucky, that’s not lost on us.
Mam and Dad are both teachers. They always instil in us the importance of education. When we were about 14 or 15 we started to get on Junior Ryder Cups, and then we got on the Curtis Cup but it clashed with the Junior Cert so we had to decide; do we do the Junior Cert, or do we go to Boston and play in the Curtis Cup? For us, there was really no decision. That was kind of the first big moment where there was a choice to be made, and ultimately, we chose golf.
Despite that, we knew how important it was for us to get back to our studies, get a Leaving Cert and go to college. Our parents definitely keep us grounded.
Every time we come home; it doesn’t matter about what we’ve achieved on the golf course. It’s about who you are as a person. It’s Leona the person, not Leona the golfer. We were brought up to appreciate the importance of being a good person, being kind to others, being grateful for the opportunities and staying humble.
We’ve been very lucky that we’ve always been close as a family. Lisa and I get asked all the time, “What’s it like being a twin?” We always say, “We don’t know any different. We’ve always had each other.” We have that kind of built-in best friend. We shared a room at home, we still do. We shared clothes growing up. We used to dress the same for a long time. Anything Lisa did I tagged along and did it with her. Naturally we ended up then having a lot of the same interests.
”I wouldn’t be where I am without Lisa. We’re each other's biggest rivals, and we’re each other’s biggest supporters. She pushed me to be the best that I could be.
She’s been a tremendous part of my journey the whole way up, so it’s nice that we’re both starting new chapters in our lives side by side. She’s achieved things in the amateur game that I didn’t even achieve and probably some people in Ireland never will. So, I’m tremendously proud.
She knows what it’s like to stand over a five-footer to win a tournament or to make a cut, so she’ll know exactly what it feels like to be in my shoes. It’ll be nice to have that there with me.
Obviously, her new role with Modest Management is exciting, and she’s going to try and grow the women’s game and stay involved. Golf’s been good to her, so it’s nice now that she’ll be able to give back to the game.
People always assume that we’re older than we actually are because we’ve been in the public eye for a long time.
I’m 25, but I’ve been competing for fifteen years. I know there are still a lot of firsts out there to achieve. That’s what’s exciting and that’s why I love this game.
If you enjoyed Leona’s piece you might like to read Rosie Foley’s – “My Brother’s Keeper“.
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